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Thursday, February 5, 2015

Gotta Make 'em Pay!

By Santonio Murff

The spacious back area of the Stringfellow Unit kitchen was humming along with the frenetic energy that was the norm for a Friday. Chicken day! Offenders roamed here and there, attending to their duties, but unable to keep longing eyes from darting to the two locked hotboxes that held baking pans on top of baking pans of the barbecued fowls.

"Ya'll watch these foxes!" Captain Lopez waddled out of his office, looking every bit of a Mexican Humpty Dumpty with his short stature, bald dome, and bulbous middle. "Don't let them steal none of my barnyard pimp (chicken).”

"We have our eyezzz," Officer Ike (pronounced "eye-kee") zig-zagged his eyes around the chowhall, jabbing a warning finger at a few suspect characters, "on them, Captain!" The Nigerian Sergeant's heavy accent and uncontainable theatrics were a constant source of laughter.

"Born-yawd pimp safe!" Chop-Chop added to the laughs with her Vietnamese accented slang. The two correctional officers stood together in solidarity like sentries before the locked boxes. Captain Lopez obviously wasn't impressed. He gave them a backhanded wave of dismissal as he waddled on into the O.D.R. (Officer's Dining Room). He'd been a correctional officer for over two decades, and knew without a doubt that some of the chicken would come up missing. It always did.

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The vast majority, well over half of the people in prison come from impoverished families. Families that honestly do not have even $10 a month to send them to get the bare necessities of hygienic supplies that one requires to be comfortable... and have others be comfortable around them. Deodorant, lotion, shampoo, hair grease, toothpaste, laundry detergent--none of these needs are met by The Texas Department of Corrections. Every seven days an offender is provided with a roll of toilet tissue, a disposable razor, and seven thin domino-size bars of lye soap. (You can request a small paper cone of toothpowder and a toothbrush every seven days when in stock, which is hardly ever on some units.) Outside of that, you're on your own.

Imagine for a second, Rick Ross or Rosie O’Donnell having to subsist on three trays of elementary school portioned gruel a day, and you may be able to fathom how fist fights have erupted in the chowhall over someone "shaking the spoon" (shaking the serving ladle to give a level scoop). Imagine an offender sitting on the steel bench in front of the television with his arms glued as tight as he can get them to his sides, because he knows his odor is appalling, but no amount of wash-offs does any good for long, and he has to make the issued soap last.

Imagine for a moment, a world where the majority of the population works five to six days a week, but doesn't get paid one red cent for their labor. Imagine that population without family or friends who can help them financially. Imagine that within that world there are some good-hearted people that will help you out, but no one wants you to become dependent on them. If you can truly imagine these realities, then you began to understand the starve and stank or hustle and hope for the best dilemma that many offenders face.

Abracadabra, a prominent member of that population and self-professed master of that world, best summed up the mentality of most of his peers: "I'm not going to be a burden to my family when I know they don't have it to send. I'm not going to refuse to work and get locked up. I'm going to turn out to work every single day I can...and make 'em pay!"

A man of his word “sometimes” as he often reminded the gamed, Donald "Abracadabra” Bishop did exactly that: Made them pay. Stanking or starving just wasn't pleasing to the ol' boy.

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I knew it was about to go down!

In prison, you develop a sixth sense about such things. Your survival is dependent on your being ever conscious of your surroundings and catching the subtle signs that others would miss. The dayroom gets abruptly quiet and violence is about to erupt. Different races clog together on opposite ends of the recreational yard and a riot is due to ensue. Everyone quickly moves away from you and you can be sure that trouble is headed your way in a hurry. To survive the concrete jungle, you must instinctively register these things and respond by reflex. There is no time for thought or pause. Hesitation can prove fatal.

But I'd left the Ferguson Unit and its daily dance with death a decade ago. The Stringfellow Unit was of a totally different ilk and character. So when I saw Abracadabra whispering fiercely with the two Mexicans working in the pot room, I didn't walk over to make sure that all was okay. When I saw the three turn hard, determined eyes on Sgt. Ike and Chop-Chop, I didn't make myself scarce and accounted for before the fireworks ensued. By the time Abracadabra strolled over to the petite Caucasian cook, I'd settled into a seat on an empty upside down milk crate by the oven to watch the show.

The hit went off like clockwork.

The stringy-headed whiteboy who was responsible for the preparation of the chicken went high-stepping over to the officers screaming, "Hot pan! Hot pan! This is the last of the chicken! Open the box, it's hot!"

Sgt. Ike quickly removed his keys and twisted off the small padlock that kept the box secure. Just as the cook began to insert the last pan of chicken, a massive metallic crash exploded from the pot room, quickly followed by hot and heavy Spanish. You didn't have to speak the language to know that violence was on the way--or had already arrived. Sgt. Ike took off towards the heart of the commotion, pulling out his pepper spray as he ran.

Chop-Chop started behind him, stopped and turned back to the unlocked hotbox, finding Flash, the cook, still struggling to get the tray in. "Watch chicken!" She ordered, flying off after Ike in case he needed some support.

"I got you," he assured her back as Abracadabra materialized like a phantom from beside the hotbox, retrieved the full bake pan of chicken from a smiling Flash, and disappeared to parts unknown to no doubt bag it up in empty bread bags to be sold at 50¢ apiece.

Flash twisted the padlock through and slammed it home just as Chop-Chop rounded the opposite side of the hotbox from which his P.I.C. (partner in crime) had disappeared. "Are you alright? What happened over there?" He shot questions at Chop-Chop before she could shoot them at him.

"Day jus bump each otter. Drop evvvy-ting, evvvy-where!" She explained, jerking on the lock to be sure that it was securely fastened.

"I hate chicken day," Ike strolled up with a weary shake of his head. "They want to fight over accident," he bugged his eyes like "Ain't that crazy," tossing his hands up and apart palms-up with the unasked question. "Roll chicken up front," he ordered Flash. "Let's get chow started."

"Yes sir," Flash rolled off.

They never did miss the 30 pieces of chicken. Captain Lopez had learned long ago to cook an extra 100 pieces, because even under the guard of some armed sentries he was sure that his barnyard pimp was gonna find its way out of that chowhall and into some hungry bellies. He couldn't have been more right.

Abracadabra had made them pay - him, and his P.I.C.s.

***          ***          ***

Texas does not pay us a single red cent for our labor. I know, I've said it before. And, I'm gonna say it again, a little louder, "TEXAS DOES NOT PAY US A SINGLE RED CENT FOR OUR LABOR!" Still, most of you, just like my family, simply won't get it. I've been incarcerated for nearly two decades, breathing for over four, and I can honestly say, I've never seen a man cry like one incarcerated with no money on his books and no one willing or able to send him any. It hurts.

"I know that Texas don't pay ya'll a lot of money for working." My little brother wrote me that puzzling sentence only a week ago. I chewed on that for quite a while. I spent quite a bit of my adolescence babysitting him, so I know he wasn't dropped on his head. I came to realize that it's just a willful ignorance, an unwillingness to face the reality of my situation. The truth maybe would require more of a sacrifice, more of a commitment than most struggling families would want to make.

"Stay out of trouble," him and my mama always say. Yet, as my lone financial support, they've gone years without sending me any money. And, in fairness to them, I must say that they've set me up with thousands of dollars so I've been far from suffering for most of those years. But, what of the prisoners like Abracadabra who've never been sent any money? Those who've hit rock bottom like I have a couple of times, and have no way to pick themselves up, but to hustle. Break the rules. Risk getting in trouble.

How long can one be expected to starve and stank before he sits at the gambling table. It's called "betting on your ass" when you gamble broke, knowing you have no way to pay your debt if you lose. How long would it take you to pocket a bag of bleach from the laundry to fend off the hunger pains? Move some contraband from one offender to another for enough funds to meet your hygienic needs and acquire a few snacks? No, the kitchen isn't the only hustle in the penitentiary, just the most lucrative and beneficial to those who have enough morals to not engage in narcotics, extortion, or the victimizing of their fellow offenders.

The most enlightened among officers and offenders understand it's never personal, just business. Abracadabra said it best, "They have a job to do and we have a job to do. If they do their job properly, we can't do our job."

Fortunately for us, compassion far outweighs competence in The Texas Department of Corrections.

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The prison scullery is by far the hottest place in the prison. In the summer months the temperature stays kissing 110 degrees. The scullery workers must not only work hard, but work fast to keep everything moving and get chow fed on time. Trays full of half eaten food, cups of drink, and dirty utensils fly through the scullery chute to be banged into trash cans, sprayed when necessary, and stacked to roll through the ancient machines to be washed and sanitized for other offenders. No trays, cups, or silverware and the whole kitchen freezes, all eyes turning to the scullery in annoyance. Lies are told, excuses made, illnesses faked to escape the scullery.

"But, I love the scullery!" Abracadabra was in rare form, sweating like a feverish preacher as he stood upon an overturned milk crate, holding court in the scullery.

"Preach, brother!" Flash leaned against the steel door egging him on. He and Abracadabra constantly disputed who was whose right-hand man, both vying for the title of Boss. "I cook it and you commute," Flash often challenged.

"Yeah, if I didn't commute it and turn it to cash, you'd just have a bigger belly and a bigger ass...And, ya know how dangerous that last part is for a white boy in here." Abracadabra was a born showman with a shrewd intellect that made ya just stop and think. He could wax humorously and poetically about any subject, and often did, to everyone's amusement.

"See, ya'll brothers have to realize that in life, you have to give something to get something," Abracadabra continued on in a rich pitch that just made you want to give him an "amen". "I don't mind," he stamp his right foot on the edge of the crate for emphasis, raising his hands palms-up to the heavens in acquiescence, "sweating all my sins away and damn near dyin' of a heatstroke every day for Ho-pez (offenders' unflattering nickname for Captain Lopez)."

He jumped down from the crate with an opened-arm flourish. "As long as he don't mind me compensating myself with the marketing of his onions," he raised a white bucket full of onions, "his pork rolls," he opened a compartment of the washing machine to show a bundle of already bagged "four for a dollar" pork rolls, "and, of course, his cheeeezzzz," he beamed his snaggled tooth smile with the drawl, cracking everybody up.

"It's the American way," Flash added. "You work and you get paid."

"Yeah, that's how it should be," Lil Chris, the cinnamon complected, muscular and brooding brother manning the chute, grabbing and banging trays as they came in, added.

"Naw, brother, that's how it is!" Abracadabra could go from ghetto slang to proper grammar in a flash. His diction often depended on who he was talking to. "Slavery was abolished by the 13th Amendment, but somehow or another, they forgot about us down here in Texas prisons," he chuckled. "So we must take it upon ourselves to," he paused to leap back upon the crate, "Make 'em pay! Make 'em Pay! Make 'em Pay!"

"Gotta make 'em pay!" Flash added as we all laughed.

The truth is no one wants to starve or stank. So hustling isn't an option. It's the only option for those without financial assistance coming from the outside world. And hustling is inevitably going to meet with trouble in one form or another. It was through Abracadabra's troubles that I witnessed firsthand how far a good sense of humor and a dose of honesty will get you in life.

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To be continued...

To read part two click here


Santonio Murff 00773394
French M. Robertson Unit
12071 FM 3500
Abilene, TX 79601


1 comment:

Barbara Grant said...

Mr. Murff makes you eagerly wonder what will happen and how his story will end. Great writer that include comical as well as serious writing.